Indigenous Futurism: Transcending the Past, Present and Future

Shuvinai Ashoona, Untitled (50 Years Co-op), 2009, coloured pencil and black felt pen on wove paper, 76.5 x 158 cm irregular. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Robert Kardosh, Vancouver, 2011 © Shuvinai Ashoona, Courtesy of Dorset Fine Arts. Photo: NGC


The three-dimensional drawing Untitled (50 Years Co-Op) by Shuvinai Ashoona, an Inuk artist from Cape Dorset, is the first of its kind to be included in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. A sculptural drawing in the form of a three-point pyramid, it seamlessly combines images of the past, present and future. On one side, a fallen apple tree is shown alongside a pencil with a line of women and children above, bundled inside their coats and holding hands. This link of women and children wraps around the entire sculpture — weaving from background to foreground in all three sides — and represents the bond between generations, a connection that leads to the future: an Indigenous future.

Ashoona’s circle of women and children holding hands invokes the writing of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist. In her book As We Have Always Done, she writes: “The idea of my arms embracing my grandchildren, and their arms embracing their grandchildren is communicated in the Nishnaabeg word kobade. According to elder Edna Manitowabi, kobade is a word we use to refer to our great-grandparents and our great-grandchildren. It means a link in a chain—a link in the chain between generations, between nations, between states of being, between individuals.”

Indigenous Futurism, a phrase originally coined by critic and writer Grace Dillon in her 2003 book Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, is the creation and visualization of possible futures for Indigenous people. As a movement, it spans visual arts, film and music. Indigenous activist and writer Erica Violet Lee explains in her essay Reconciling in the Apocalypse that “In knowing the histories of our relations and of this land, we find the knowledge to recreate all that our worlds would’ve been, if not for the interruption of colonization.”

Shelley Niro, This Land Is Mime Land, unknown, printed 1992, gelatin silver print heightened with paint, gelatin silver print, toned, gelatin silver print in hand-drilled overmat, 56 x 94 cm overall. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of Sandra Jackson, Bramalea, Ontario, 1995 © Shelley Niro. Photo: NGC


The triptych as a visual element is also found in Shelley Niro’s series This Land is Mime Land. Niro, a Kanien’kehaka multi-disciplinary artist, is particularly noted for her work using the medium of photography. Each work in this series includes a hand-coloured parodic portrait, a sepia-toned family photograph, and a self-portrait of the artist. Niro’s self-portraits, when juxtaposed with a sepia-toned family photo from the past, speak to an Indigenous Futurism by demonstrating the simultaneous past, present, and future that exists within Indigenous culture.

Greg Hill, Audain Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, stresses the importance of Indigenous Futurism. “Indigenous futures are connected to the past. An aspect of Indigenous Futurism is to imagine ourselves in the future because too often we are placed only in the past …. To actively think of an Indigenous future is [to get] out of a backward loop.” The works in Niro’s 1999 series, Time Travels Through Us, are also tripartite. A portrait of three generations of women in her family, it reinforces the important link between three generations. By not limiting her gaze to the past, Niro creates art that encompasses the ethos of Indigenous Futurism and, as Hill comments, works to break out of the historical gaze.

Shelley Niro, Time Travels through Us, 1999, gelatin silver print, cotton and beaded mat work, silver painted wood frame, 94 x 83.8 cm framed. CMCP Collection, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Shelley Niro. Photo: NGC


Also from Cape Dorset, Pudlo Pudlat creates drawings of imaginary scenes that combine Inuit myths with modern technology. In her essay Visual Cultures of Indigenous Futurisms, Indigenous writer and curator Lindsay Nixon explains the prevalence of futurism in Inuit art: “Inuit art offers a particularly interesting location for the future imaginary because of the proximity to first contact moments with settler society. For some Inuit, close encounters with an alien culture, outside of anything within the worlds they have ever known, have happened within their lifetime. Inuit artists have depicted their early interactions with settlers in speculative ways using futuristic imaginative concepts: a future imagery in the present.”

Airplanes and helicopters are a common trope in Pudlat’s drawings, appearing as otherworldly objects akin to UFOs. These airplanes and helicopters are often depicted as an invasive force, mirroring the act of colonization. His re-imagining of settler contact through futuristic and alien imagery critiques and denounces a settler narrative.

Pudlo Pudlat, Qulaguli, 1976 ?, coloured pencil and black felt pen on wove paper, 56.5 x 76.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, Cape Dorset, Northwest Territories, 1993. Photo: NGC


“As a curator, we’re building a collection for the future, so it’s very much present in my mind that we’re bringing work into the collection that is going to be here for a long time. So young artists, visitors in the future, are going to see them and learn about aspects of culture, learn about issues and concerns of the time when the works were created,” says Hill.

The physicality and permanence of Indigenous art at the National Gallery creates a space where an Indigenous Futurism can thrive, looking ahead into the future as opposed to creating a narrative cemented in the past.

Works by Shuvinai Ashoona, Shelley Niro and Pudlo Pudlat are on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. For more works, see also the National Gallery of Canada’s online collection. If you would like to share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right of this page.

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